By G9ija

Two provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban within 24 hours, local officials confirmed to The National.

Government-aligned forces retreated from Sheberghan in Jowzjan province in the north on Saturday.

This came a day after Zaranj, the capital of the south-western Nimruz province – a key border town – was also seized by the insurgents.

Jowzjan, which is a stronghold of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former Afghan vice president, was being defended by his son Yar Mohammad Dostum, along with members of a local volunteer force that had mobilised to fight the Taliban.

“They have entered Sheberghan and taken control of government facilities and buildings,” a local government employee who identified as Abdul Rauf told The National.

“The only area they don’t have control of is Bandar Aqina, which is a key border crossing,” he added, referring to a border town that lies between Jowzjan and Faryab province. It is about 100 kilometres from Sheberghan.

“Marshal Dostum’s older son, Yar Mohammad Dostum, is leading a resistance effort along with local militia groups and government forces, but the Taliban are still in control of large parts of Sherberghan,” Mr Rauf said.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, who leads the Junbish-i-Milli party that is influential among the Uzbek ethnic minority in the northern provinces, arrived in Afghanistan on Thursday from Turkey, where he was recovering from health issues.

Despite previous political rivalry, the Afghan government has backed Abdul Rashid Dostum’s militia force in the recent fighting against the Taliban.

Mr Rauf said that several hundred Junbish militia members were expected to arrive from Balkh province as reinforcements.

“We are hoping this helps change the equation on the ground,” he said.

In Zaranj, however, locals said that the district fell without any resistance from Afghan government forces and their allies.

“When the Taliban came to our city yesterday, there weren’t any troops. They took control of our city without a fight,” a local resident told The National, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“Unlike Kandahar or Helmand, which they are still fighting for, there weren’t any battles here.”

The local police force, he added, had retreated to the adjacent Chahar-Borjak district, which remains partially under Afghan government control.

“We don’t know yet if they have any plan to attack or if they do, when it will be,” he said.

Afghan military aircraft had been flying sorties against the Taliban, the Zaranj resident said.

“Last night the government conducted some air strikes. But they mostly only targeted equipment, vehicles and the buildings the Taliban took when they arrived,” he said.

Earlier reports had shown Afghans fleeing to neighbouring Iran as the Taliban advanced from Kang district, which they seized on Thursday.

Graphic videos and photos shared by local journalists with The National showed the extremist group murdering Afghan soldiers who had surrendered.

The US embassy in Kabul condemned the takeover of both provinces, calling it “unlawful”.

“We condemn the Taliban’s violent new offensive against Afghan cities. This includes the unlawful seizure of Zaranj, the capital of Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, the attack on Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan province yesterday and today, and continuing efforts to take over Lashkar Gah in Helmand and provincial capitals elsewhere,” embassy officials said on Saturday.

The US government also raised concerns over the Taliban’s imposition of draconian rules on civilians.

“These Taliban actions to forcibly impose its rule are unacceptable and contradict its claim to support a negotiated settlement in the Doha peace process,” said US officials.

“They demonstrate wanton disregard for the welfare and rights of civilians and will worsen this country’s humanitarian crisis.”

The resident in Zaranj confirmed that Taliban had already begun imposing their rules in the city and had ordered government officials to resume work.

“They have taken over the police headquarters and the governor’s office. They have also ordered the closing down of three girl’s schools, even though these schools were currently shut for summer vacation,” he said, adding that many women are concerned for their future in the city.

“Every Afghan believes that the US and the world has abandoned them,” he said.